Growing Roots


I don’t have much to say about math at the moment. Classes are proceeding. Papers are too. Committee work has continued to intensify. Hiring for two positions has taken an enormous amount of time and energy from the whole department. But I have to admit these things haven’t really been at the front of my mind.

In speaking to many of my other early-career colleagues, one of the strangest things about the tenure track is its semi-permanence. Sure, people change schools sometimes. There’s a open letter or blog post every other week about somebody leaving academia entirely for greener pastures. And there’s always the looming worry that “tenure track” won’t turn into “tenured.” But I think most people don’t start their tenure track job with one foot out the door. We mean to take off our coats and stay awhile.

Which is the polar opposite of the lifestyle we’ve grown accustomed to. Our entire adult lives are spent as transients: off somewhere for undergrad, somewhere else for grad school, and increasingly a series of postdocs or visiting positions or adjunct gigs. No time to put down roots or develop a real sense of community, at least outside the walls of the department. Little time or energy for volunteer work. No money for a house to fix up, or a garden to plant. Your friends are a revolving door of graduating PhDs, fresh-faced new grad students, and faculty members at schools where you’ll spend a year or two at best.

A colleague in another department realized last spring that the reason she was getting anxious as summer approached was because it felt like it was time to move again, since that’s what she’d done over so many summers before. And I’ve felt that way once or twice too these past couple of years, like it’s automatically getting to be time to move on.

I loved the nomad life while I lived it, and given the academic job market I don’t think I ever really thought it would stop. But now I also love my job and my colleagues and my students and my city. Even though I’m getting itchy feet out of pure habit, I can’t imagine leaving.

Monday afternoon, we close on a house. Our first. I honestly don’t think I ever thought we’d own a home. I figured we’d end up in a large-ish city with a too-high cost of living, or we’d be so transient that it would never be worth the investment. But then we moved to Frederick, where, at least compared to neighboring DC, a house is pretty reasonable. And we have no plans to leave anytime soon. So next week we’ll have a home, with a garden and a tire swing (really!), and maybe we’ll finally get around to finding furniture that didn’t come from the Ikea scratch-and-dent section or off of somebody else’s curb.

I’ve also thrown myself into the community. I used to do a ton of volunteer work when I was younger, but then graduate school took up all my energy. Even during my postdoc I didn’t do much, though I had the time. I just wasn’t compelled to invest a ton of work in a community I’d be leaving so soon. But now I’m planting trees and pulling invasive plants in the park near my house. I’m getting involved in local politics, even organizing educational events in town. I think I even promised to go to a city budget meeting to advocate for a cause in a moment of weakness. I’ve met almost every one of my political representatives, from the local to the federal level. I feel a part of this town in a way I haven’t since I was a kid. I can’t even go to the grocery store without bumping into somebody I know, and somehow that doesn’t sound as bad as I would have thought it was a year or two ago.

So we’re fighting the weird career wanderlust for now. None of this fixes the worries about disaster striking come dossier time. But I don’t see a reason to spend the next five years with my bags half-packed. And I think I’ll be even more productive now that I can take breaks in my sweet tire swing.

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